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The global market for drones is booming. But what does the coming arms race mean for US national security interests — and the future of warfare? GlobalPost correspondents report from critical locations around the world, from Israel to Iran to Yemen to Brazil — where unmanned aerial vehicles are radically transforming combat and surveillance.
China is pioneering the use of unmanned aerial vehicles in the region, but remains far behind the US and Israel.
China is known to have made advances in UAV technology and is developing more advanced, high-speed drones specifically for combat, according to the GAO report, but people like Dennis Blasko, an expert on China’s military in the China Security Affairs Group at the Center for Naval Analyses, said those systems are still in the “development phase.”
Blasko said that he hadn’t seen any evidence that China has “moved beyond the prototype stage for long-range, armed UAVs” and that China is still working on understanding and developing technology that the US has had experience operating in combat situations for over a decade.
“The important part to me is not so much the technology, eventually they'll figure out how to build these things,” Blasko said. “The much more difficult and longer process is actually learning how to operate them for extended periods at extended ranges.”
On September 28, the Obama administration announced it would block the acquisition of four wind farm projects by Ralls Corporation, a Chinese company under parent equipment manufacturer Sany Group, that are “within or in the vicinity of restricted air space at Naval Weapons Systems Training Facility Boardman in Oregon” over fears they could be used to collect intelligence on that facility.
The move was the first time a US president had issued such an order since George H.W. Bush blocked acquisition of MAMCO Manufacturing, Inc. by China National Aero-Technology Import and Export Corporation.
While President Obama did not directly discuss the possible threat a China-owned wind farm posed to the naval base, according to the base’s website the facility is used for “performing research, development, test and evaluation activities on unmanned aerial systems,” the very systems where China lags in its operational capabilities.
“If this [news] is accurate and the wind farm projects could ‘collect intelligence’ it is likely their target would be how we operate our UAVs and train our UAV pilots,” said Blasko.
Blasko said China has “quite an array of UAVs” at the shorter range, and are experimenting with very small “hand-held UAVs that can be carried in an infantryman’s pack” but most of these are for surveillance, artillery targeting or damage assessment, or for electronic warfare, such as communications jamming operations.
Gormley agreed that China is still catching up, not only with the vehicles themselves, but with the supporting infrastructure, pointing toward the US’ decade of “real-world experience with armed drones” as a great advantage the America has in the UAV arena.
"Many of my colleagues in think tanks are creating a China that is 10 feet tall in some respects, like many of us did in the Cold War," Gormley said. "It's important to recognize that China has not fought a war in over three decades."
Gormley said it “truly remains to be seen” what China’s UAV capabilities are and added that "some people question the quality of China’s ability to do sophisticated command and control" needed to effectively use UAVs in intense combat operations.
Questions have also surfaced about how much China might have learned from pieces of downed US drone technology passed along to them from intelligence services in countries in the Middle East such as Iran and Pakistan, though Gormley said how much of a benefit that has been is debatable.
"You can learn a lot by having access to the item, but the idea of direct straightforward reverse engineering, it is much harder than it first appears, especially when you don't have access to the original design team and are operating without engineering drawings and blueprints,” Gormley said. “With these limitations, perhaps the best outcome is producing a new vehicle with substantially less capability than the copied item."
While real operational ability might be several years away, if China does develop quality drones, that could add to their speedy proliferation around the world.
China could "definitely mass produce" UAVs, VornDick said, once they develop one seen as highly marketable. "If they have a decent product that comes relatively cheap they could mass produce it."
VornDick said he didn’t think the US was in a “drones race” with China yet, but added that "I would definitely say that it is one of the new evolutionary pieces in military development over the next 20 years."
Su Dongxia contributed research to this report.